By Ilaria Cutolo
It’s hard to say at first what The Sign in Sydney Brustein’s Window, written by Lorraine Hansberry and directed by Anne Kaufman, is all about. Is it about modern man’s need to believe in something? Society’s inequalities, homophobia, racism, sexism, classism-all of the above? Yes, I believe it is.
The play takes place in a cozy bohemian Greenwich Village apartment in 1964. It was written while Lorraine Hansberry, playwright of A Raisin in the Sun was being treated for pancreatic cancer, which ultimately took her life shortly after the play’s short run ended, at the age of 34. The play feels like a person’s very late coming to terms with their life. It’s a monumental feat when you think about it-attempting to tackle all of society’s ugliness in one play. This is possibly why it feels a bit disjointed and unpolished at times.
We are first introduced to Sydney (Oscar Isaac), a loud, obnoxious and jaded bohemian/ communist who has stopped caring and wants nothing more than to go live in a cabin in the woods and play his banjo. A failed nightclub owner, now trying to resurrect a newspaper, he begrudgingly backs a local politician who promises radical reform. Meanwhile, his wife, Iris (Rachel Brosnahan), at 29, is a fed up waitress and striving actress who, after 2 years of therapy comes to the conclusion that she no longer wants to live in her husband’s shadow, but, instead, wants to make something of herself.
Most of the play is Sydney ranting on about societies woes with philosophical pomp channeling both Greek mythology and Marxism. He is more of a complainer than a doer. Iris, fed up, goes off to pursue her acting career, disappearing in the second act for a good 60 minutes, at least. Most of the second act I was left thinking, where did Iris go, and is she coming back?
It’s obvious that people came to see Isaac and Brosnahan, and I have to say, they both delivered with strong performances. Both are dynamic actors. Yet, I couldn’t help but see glimpses of Mrs. Maisel in Iris and Llewyn Davis in Sydney, given the time period and set. Isaac and Brosnahan are very comfortable in that time period. Their charisma and chemistry hit you instantly. This is a couple still crazy for each other and beginning to drift apart.
Iris’s sister, Mavis (Miriam Silverman), gives a stellar performance as the uptight, albeit bigoted, uptown homemaker whom by act 2 turns out to have more depth than we expected. She, surprisingly, feels like a more developed character in the play. By the end I still wanted to know more about Sydney and Iris, especially Iris, who felt underdeveloped and at times too savvy for what we’ve been made to believe about her.
There are some laugh out loud moments that bring levity and balance to it all, and by the middle of the second act we see Sydney begin to take more form and depth while coming to terms with his tattered marriage, perhaps a mid-life crises.
There’s a lot happening in this play, and the supporting characters are critical. Sydney’s friend Alton (Julian De Niro), a young intellectual black man dating Iris’ younger sister Gloria (Gus Birney), becomes disillusioned and angrier than he lets on when he finds out that she is a call-girl, not a model. David (Glenn Fitzgerald) the upstairs gay neighbor/writer turns out to be less than admirable than when we first met him. Maybe this is what Hansberry really had in mind all along – to reveal what lies beneath the surface of people, when push comes to shove. Even though some of the characters felt a little underdeveloped and the plot a little fuzzy, the performances felt believable.
And did I mention the amazing, minimalist set deign by dots? The entire stage becomes a Greenwich Village apartment building with fire scape, scaffolding, and all. We see actors coming and going behind and around the main set as part of the action. Creative and ingenious.
All in all, I left very entertained, and thinking that, sadly, the issues raised here still ring true 59 years later.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window appears on Broadway at the James Earl Jones Theatre. Tickets starting at $95 on sale through July 2nd.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is written by Lorraine Hansberry, directed by Anne Kaufman, and stars Golden Globe Award winner Oscar Isaac (Sidney Brustein), in his Broadway debut, and Emmy Award winner Rachel Brosnahan (Iris Brustein).
The design team for The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window includes dots (Scenic Design), Brenda Abbandandolo (Costume Design), John Torres (Lighting Design), Bray Poor (Sound Design), Leah Loukas (Wig Design), Arminda Thomas (Dramaturg), Kate Wilson (Voice Coach), and Sonya Tayeh (Movement Director).
The complete cast includes Gus Birney (Gloria Parodus), Julian De Niro (Alton Scales), Glenn Fitzgerald (David Ragin), Andy Grotelueschen (Wally O’Hara), Miriam Silverman (Mavis Parodus Bryson), Raphael Nash Thompson (Max). The understudy company features Joey Auzenne, Katya Campbell, Gregory Connors, and Brontë England Nelson.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is presented by Seaview, Sue Wagner, John Johnson, Jeremy O. Harris and BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music).
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window debuted on Broadway in 1964, on the heels of Hansberry’s meteoric debut with A Raisin in the Sun (1959) and shortly before her death at the age of 34. This will be its first time on Broadway in more than 50 years. Its run at BAM welcomed new audiences and broke every house record at the Harvey Theater. This is the first BAM-produced production to transfer to Broadway since The Gospel at Colonus, 35 years ago.